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This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996).   Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.  

Nathaniel J. Bradlee: Master Builder of Boston

Those who have had occasion to make a circuit of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir recently will be shocked by the shabby appearance of that once beautiful body of water---formerly one of Boston’s greatest visual and recreational amenities.

Shortly after the opening of this great reservoir, in 1870, Newton historian S. F. Smith acclaimed its "sparkling sheets of water and its fine views" as "a perpetual benediction" to the people of the metropolis. However, Smith reckoned without the short-sighted public policy that has allowed this important public facility to deteriorate so deplorably.

The Chestnut Hill Reservoir originally contained two basins---the existing one, which was named for the great Boston architect and engineer Nathaniel J. Bradlee, and a somewhat smaller body of water to the immediate west, named for leading industrialist Amos Lawrence. The latter body of water was turned over to Boston College about 1950, and has since been filled in. The university’s lower campus and Alumni Stadium now occupies the site.

It is with the career of the namesake of the surviving basin---Nathaniel Jeremiah Bradlee---that this article is chiefly concerned. Though one of Boston’s leading mid-19th century men of affairs, the President of the Boston Water Board at the time of the construction of the Chestnut Hill facility, and a prolific architect who designed more than 500 Boston buildings, Bradlee’s name is today largely forgotten.

Nathaniel J. Bradlee was born in Boston in 1829, the son of Samuel Bradlee, a well-to-do hardware merchant, and of Elizabeth Davis, member of another prominent Boston family. His maternal grandfather, Caleb Davis, a wealthy merchant and Revolutionary-era politician, served as the first Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives under the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.

Nathaniel Bradlee grew up on Avon Place (now Avon Street) in downtown Boston, a short street that runs from Washington Street, opposite Temple Place, to nearby Chauncy Street.

In choosing civil engineering and architecture as a career Bradlee was following in the footsteps of his paternal grandfather, another Nathaniel Bradlee, who had been a highly successful Boston builder.

Nathaniel received his education at the well-known Chauncy Hall School, located but a stone's throw from the family’s residence on Avon Place.

This was all the formal education Bradlee ever received, but it must have been thoroughgoing, especially in mathematics and drawing, for when he graduated in 1846, the seventeen year old was immediately hired as a draftsman by one of Boston’s leading architects, George Dexter, who was then at work with Edward Cabot on the landmark Boston Athenaeum building on Beacon Street.

Bradlee was quickly promoted to a full partnership, and when Dexter died in 1856, the then twenty-seven year old Bradlee succeeded him as head of the firm.

Bradlee was both a prolific and highly versatile architect. In the 1850s, his first full decade of practice, he designed three new buildings for the Boston & Lowell Railroad; a mausoleum for the pioneer industrialist Francis Cabot Lowell; a gate at the Tremont Street entrance to the Boston Common; a new edifice for the first First Church of Jamaica Plain; the Trinity Church Chapel on Summer Street; several Boston school buildings; the headquarters of the Provident Institution for Savings on Tremont Place; a riding academy at the foot of Beacon Hill's Chestnut Street; as well as important commercial buildings, including the C. F. Hovey Department Store.

The most important early structure by Bradlee was Harvard College's handsome Gray’s Hall, begun in 1858, the oldest of the three Victorian dormitories that still stand in the southern half of Harvard Yard.

In 1856 Bradlee married Julia R. Weld, daughter of a well-to-do Baltimore merchant. They had three daughters and resided in Roxbury.

Bradlee designed many South End structures, including several elegant blocks of townhouses. Other buildings by Bradlee in that section of town  included two churches of note: the Springfield Street Church, dating from 1860, and a new building on Union Park Street for Rev. Edward Everett Hale’s South Congregational Church, completed between 1872 and 1874. Bradlee also designed the landmark St Cloud Hotel, situated at the corner of Union Park and Tremont Streets, a marble apartment building of the popular “French flat” variety.

Though Bradlee designed numerous Back Bay structures, including over twenty residences, and a new headquarters of the Second Church of Boston on Boylston Street, he left less of a mark on this new district than on the South End and the Commercial area.

Bradlee’s also played an active part in public affairs, serving as an elected at-large member of the Boston Water Board from 1865 to 1871, the public agency that managed the city’s water supply system.

During the last three years of his service there, Bradlee was the body’s President. Under his leadership some 48 miles of new pipes were laid out and water service was extended to thousands of new homeowners and businesses. In addition, the massive Chestnut Hill Reservoir was completed in 1870, his last full year at the helm of the board, and the larger of the reservoir’s basins was named in his honor.

Bradlee served the Water Board in other ways. In 1868 he authored the first published history of Boston’s water supply system, a work entitled A History of the Introduction of Pure Water into the City of Boston.. He also designed the handsome Cochituate Standpipe, which still stands on the site of a Revolutionary War fort in Roxbury’s Highland Park.
Bradlee was noted both for his cordiality and absolute honesty. When he retired from the Presidency of the Water Board, in January 1871, its members praised the “able, impartial, and dignified manner” in which he had always conducted the body’s meetings. His reputation for honesty was such that he was named as trustee for no less than fifty large Boston fortunes over the course of his career.

In 1869, Bradlee took up a particularly challenging civil engineering project by accepting a commission from the city of Boston to move the seven-story Pelham Hotel, situated at the corner of Tremont and Boylston Street (on the site of the Little Building) several feet back on its lot to allow for the widenening of adjacent streets. This was no small undertaking. The massive structure covered 5200 square feet and weighed an estimated 10,000 tons!

As the Boston Globe  noted of this feat: "Such an undertaking was considered almost impossible....Larger buildings had been raised but none of equal size were ever removed."  The Pelham Hotel was successfully moved under Bradlee’s direction, an accomplishment that attracted much favorable comment, accounts of it appearing in publications not only in the United States but in Britain, France, and Germany. Later the architect-engineer also moved the Boylston Market building.

The Boston Water Board was the only elective office Bradlee ever held, though he was a candidate for Mayor in 1876, having received the Republican nomination for that office. In endorsing his candidacy the Boston Herald  noted that Bradlee was a "pure and upright man who though differing from the members of the [Republican nominating] convention on important questions of national politics, is no partisan and casts his vote as his conscience tells him."  A Republican had been elected Mayor of Boston the year before by a fairly comfortable margin and, given his excellent public reputation, under normal circumstances his prospects would have been quite good.

Unfortunately, Bradlee’s nomination came an inopportune moment for the Republican Party nationally---in the midst of the highly controversial 1876 presidential contest, a protracted contest that would end in the election of Republican B Hayes by the margin of a single electoral vote, notwithstanding a substantial popular vote victory for his Democratic opponent, Samuel J. Tilden.

The city’s Democratic leadership attributed Bradlee’s by Democrat Frederick O. Prince to "the outrageous conduct of the Republican Party throughout the country," and as the "express[ion] the sentiment of an outraged people." Under more favorable circumstances the Republican candidate, who lost this election by a scant 2,300 votes would have stood a much better chance. When again nominated for the office in 1887 by an independent Citizen’s Ticket, Bradlee, who was in declining health, refused the nomination.

    It was as an architect and engineer, however, that Nathaniel J. Bradlee made his mark on the history of Boston, continuing to design significant buildings into the 1880s. The most notable post-1870 Bradlee structures included the landmark New England Mutual Life Insurance Company building in Post Office Square (demolished in 1946), the Young Men’s Christian Union building on Boylston Street, dating from 1875 (an official City of Boton Landmark), and the Boston & Maine Railroad Depot in Haymarket Square.  Bradley also designed hotels, department stores, and commercial buildings in the last two decades of his career. One notable structure was Palladio Hall in Roxbury's Dudley Square, a property now on the National Register of Historic Places, which the architect built for himself (he was apparently considering relocating his architectural firm there, though he never did so).

Nathaniel J. Bradlee's life was cut short in December 1888 when he suffered a fatal stoke aboard a Boston & Fitchburg train while on a business trip to Keene, New Hampshire. He was fifty-nine years of age. With the death, as the Globe  noted, Boston lost "one of [the] most successful men" of that era.

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